Once, at a previous school, a female student came to me to report a boy who had told her, in front of the class, that she’d had a “nice arse.” Sadly, it wasn’t the comment that the girl was concerned with-she was used to this sort of thing from this particular boy-and nor was she really concerned with him being punished- it seemed silly to her that something so routine as female objectification would be punished. No, what I was soon to realise, was that this girl came to me because she was ashamed and she needed to let somebody know.
Her shame-and the tears that followed- stemmed from her reaction to the boy’s comment: she had laughed. In laughing, she believed, she had approved his behaviour and she was now embarrassed and ashamed of this.
I explained to her that laughter was a perfectly acceptable response and I explained (although, in rather more delicate terms), that a female could be wearing a t-shirt exclaiming, ‘Comment on my body- I’d love you to’ and it still gives nobody-male or female- the right to do so.
There is a sexual assault problem in our schools. And by assault, I’m not just talking physical acts, from rape to groping to pinching, that come under this umbrella, but verbal acts too: the sexual jibes and the sexualised language that, in some classrooms, has become the language of the lesson; the direct references to female body parts and the infuriating habit possessed by pubescents of finding innuendo in the most innocuous of phrases.
A recent report by the Women’s and Equalities Comittee found that:
- almost a third (29%) of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school
- nearly three-quarters (71%) of all 16-18 year old boys and girls say they hear terms such as “slut” or “slag” used towards girls at schools on a regular basis
- 59% of girls and young women aged 13-21 said in 2014 that they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year
Sadly, these statistics don’t surprise me. Whilst I have never worked in a school where I’ve been witness to, or heard about, any physical instances of assault, and where incidents featuring direct comments on an individual’s physicality (such as mentioned above) have been extremely rare, I am sick to the teeth of the routinely sexualised languages employed-yes, mainly by boys (not at all boys I hasten to add) in the classroom. In fact, I’m not just sick of it; I’m ashamed by it.
It’s a confusing time for boys and their sexuality. Society has never really made it okay for boys to assert themselves sexually by means of their appearance; for boys, brash verbalised assertions of sexual preference, potency, and desire are the order of the day. And now, quite rightly, we are trying to drum this out of them. And yet, these same boys, who are repeatedly being discouraged to express their sexual desires and wants are going home to mothers who proudly assert their penchant for that guy from Poldark and their lust for Cumberbatch all over social media. Shows like Loose Women routinely objectify men, and in some schools I’ve worked at, I’ve even seen female teachers proudly display calendars depicting their favourite male objects of desire in various sexualised costumes and poses. There’s a whiff of double standards.
All this, may point to a reason for the shocking statistics I quoted earlier. As society moves-no, limps- towards gender equality, are women becoming more sexually empowered and men less so? I accept now, that as a man, it would be totally unacceptable for me to ever make reference to a female colleague’s looks, or even express any sort of sexual desire for a female celebrity. And yet, I know that this isn’t the case when the genders are reversed. So, is this disgusting, sexualised language being used by boys as a desperate attempt to reclaim some of that good ol’ macho masculinity? I don’t know, but it’s a theory.
The fact is, the language I’m hearing in some classrooms is appalling. The focus on paedophilia and rape is a real worry. Some boys jocularly dismiss each other as ‘paedos’ or ‘nonces’, when the recipeient of these insults has done nothing even vaguely related to the act of forcing sex upon a minor. “You fancy whatsherface in Year 9? Paedo.” I was recently reading The Yellow Wallpaper and one boy found the fact that the nursery in which the main character resides has chains on the wall meant, “ugh! They’ve bought a paedo house! They’re all paedos!” And of course, some of the others found this hilarious. Clearly, their is fear here. Fear of the very real threat of paedophiles. But the simple fact is, this fear shouldn’t be manifesting itself in ‘banter’ or cheap jokes. Just as boys interest and curiosity regarding sex shouldn’t be manifesting itself in crude euphemisms for the sexual act or crass references to both male and female genitalia.
There is something we can do.
Schools need a two pronged approach. Firstly, boys need to be educated-that is, specifically instructed- in what they can or can’t do. Might I suggest some boys-only assemblies based on the ideas expressed here.
Secondly, boys-and girls- of any sexually motivated assault-be it physical or simply verbal- need to be punished severely. It absolutely needs stamping out. Of course, this punishment needs to go hand in hand with an explanation of why what they have said or done is totally unacceptable. In my current school incidents such as the ones I’ve discussed in this blog post are rare because we take a severe approach in the punishment of such acts. Boys are then spoken to individually and embark on a course of monitoring in regards to this area. It works.
As teachers, we need to become better at picking up on incidences of sexualised language within the classroom and the playground- a part of me worries that in some areas, for some boys, it’s become so routine that we are immune to it.
I think projects such as this one, mentioned in The Times, earlier this week are also very powerful. Schools need to provide opportunities for boys to explore and express their sexuality in a mature way, free from the vulgarity of the vernacular they’re used to.